COUNCIL BLUFFS — Iowa's flooded roadways are leading the state into uncharted waters.
Portions of Interstate 29 and several highways are expected to remain underwater for months.
For a major highway to be submerged for so long is unprecedented in Iowa, said Dena Gray-Fisher, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation's office of multimedia services.
"The (department) has experience with prior flooding events and the resulting damage that can be caused, but none are similar to this one, which involves an inundation of the roadway for several months," she said.
"The integrity of the roadway under saturated conditions, velocity of floodwaters and then the rate of drainage could present a host of problems that are yet unknown," Gray-Fisher said.
About 40 miles of the Iowa portion of I-29 are closed because of flooding — from the Missouri border to exit 24, near Bartlett, and from North 25th Street north of Council Bluffs to the 71 milepost two miles south of Missouri Valley. While a little bit of the Interstate has emerged from the water, most of it has been underwater for more than a month, and isn't likely to dry up anytime soon.
Other closures include I-680 from Nebraska to I-29, Highway 2 from Nebraska to I-29, Highway 175 from the Decatur, Neb., toll bridge to I-29, and Highway 333 from I-29 to Hamburg. All of these closures are expected to be long term. The Highway 175 toll bridge is expected to need complete reconstruction.
On I-29 south of Blencoe, between mile markers 103 and 104, an emergency flood mitigation project is under way to raise the southbound lanes by 1 foot along a 4,200-foot stretch. North of Blencoe, near mileposts 107 and 109, TrapBag barrier walls were installed to protect I-29.
The closed I-29/680 interchange near Loveland was reopened after mitigation work, including sandbags, a barrier wall and pumps. Further work, including construction of a dike and the jacking of large drainage pipes under the roadway, has now been completed.
With critical areas underwater, an accurate damage assessment is not possible, Gray-Fisher said.
"Photos and video being collected provide some early indications of the types of damage that is occurring, but no dollar figure has been calculated," she said. "Examples of damage include shoulder damage, debris and soils on the roadway, erosion and loss of material, loss of embankment, pavement loss, guardrail loss, signage loss and undermining of roads."
At this point, the only flood-related street problems in the city of Council Bluffs seem related to its sewer problems.
"We have either eight or nine sanitary sewer collapses," said Don Gross, public information officer.
The damage to the sewer lines will, in turn, affect the streets, he said.
"(They) may have to be worked on in order to get to the sanitary sewer," Gross said.
Then there are the streets affected by the repair and replacement of pumps at various stations, Gross said. Already, work has had to be done on pump stations near Veterans Memorial Highway, South 28th Street and in the Twin City area, he said.
Right now, Gray-Fisher said, the DOT is focusing its efforts on three phases of work: emergency response, flood mitigation and emergency repair.
"During a disaster, the DOT works closely with the Federal Highway Administration for claims related to federal-aid highways or roads on federal lands, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist cities and counties with nonfederal-aid roads and streets," she said.
Early on there is an "intense effort" to record all expenditures, design repair projects and let them out for bid and take photographs and video of damage and work performed. During the past few weeks, the DOT has been working with the Federal Highway Administration to make site visits (where possible) and document evidence that this flood event meets the minimum requirements of the Federal-Aid Highway Emergency Relief Program, which is damage of at least $700,000, she said.
"Initial damage survey is also based on aerial flyovers, news telecasts and other means of quickly estimating the extent of damage," she said. "This initial damage survey is then followed up later with more detailed site inspections."
Federal funding for road repairs may be available, Gray-Fisher said.
"By law, the Federal Highway Administration can provide up to $100 million in emergency relief funding to a state for each natural disaster that is found eligible for funding under the ER program," she said. "For a large, costly disaster that exceeds the $100 million cap, Congress can pass special legislation lifting the cap for that disaster."
The Emergency Relief Program is a cost-sharing program between the federal government and the state and/or local highway authorities. Here is how it works in some cases:
» For the costs associated with restoring essential highway traffic, minimizing the extent of damage or protecting the remaining facility, the federal share is 100 percent for the first 180 days after the occurrence of the disaster.
» For the costs of permanent restoration work and cost of all repairs incurred after the first 180 days, the federal share is based on the type of federal-aid highway being repaired. For Interstates, the federal share is 90 percent.
» For all other federal-aid highways the federal share generally is 80 percent.
The Federal Highway Administration's Emergency Relief Program is only for federal-aid highways, Gray-Fisher said. Federal assistance for repair of other public roads is available through FEMA.
"Once the site visits ... are complete, the Iowa DOT will submit a formal request for ER funding," she said. "If a positive finding is made (by Federal Highway Administration officials), they will submit a request for an allocation of ER funds."